Illinois health officials have announced a new system that will test wastewater for COVID-19 and use those tests to find "early warnings of a potential outbreak on a county-by-county basis."
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, "is detectable in human waste nearly from the onset of infection, while symptoms may not appear for three to five days."
The department plans to implement a monitoring system for next year that will test wastewater in various counties for signs of the virus as well as for new variants that may emerge.
“Data generated through sampling wastewater will help public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement. “Wastewater testing has been used successfully in the past for early detection of diseases, such as polio. Measuring the virus levels in untreated wastewater can serve as an early indicator of increasing infections in a community and can inform our public health actions.”
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IDPH and the Discovery Partners Institute say the program, which the health department is giving $5.5 million to, will begin in phases, starting with sampling and analysis in 10 Illinois counties. The program will then expand to 35 counties in mid-summer, and to all 102 Illinois counties by the end of the year, according to both groups.
The 10 initial counties include Carroll, Cass, Franklin, Fulton, Jefferson, Lawrence, Livingston, Macon, Montgomery, and Vermilion.
Under the program, treatment plant personnel will collect 8-ounce samples twice a week and ship them overnight for lab analysis, which will then measure SARS-CoV-2 levels and use genetic sequencing to track variants.
“Wastewater analysis is an ideal method for understanding COVID-19 trends in communities, complementing individual testing and providing an early indicator of outbreaks,” DPI Director of Research Dr. Venkat Venkatakrishnan said in a statement. “The testing is sensitive enough to detect a handful of COVID-19 cases in a population of tens of thousands yet is completely anonymous.”